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Stop the Patent Process Madness

Lauren Weinstein Email 10.21.02

Watch your step: If you've ever exercised your cat by having it chase the reflected spot of a laser pointer, you and kitty may be in violation of a bona fide U.S. patent.

Don't believe it? Take a gander at Patent No. 5,443,036, Method of Exercising a Cat, issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1995.

Welcome to the wacky, wild, out-of-control world of "IP." Most network geeks translate IP as Internet Protocol, as in TCP/IP, but to the guys in the suits it's Intellectual Property -- as in pay through the nose.

Intellectual property these days covers everything from the shape of Mickey Mouse's ears to the format of Web image files to patterns of DNA. Copyrights, patents, trademarks, all these and more fall under IP's wide and expanding umbrella.

IP controversies are finding their way out of the back of the business section and onto the front page.

While recent Supreme Court arguments against the never-ending barrage of copyright extensions seem unlikely to sway the current stable of Supremes, the fact that the case even got there shows that IP disputes have gone prime time in a big way.

Meanwhile, trademark battles tangle the Net domain-name world into knots, with new top-level domain extensions filling up with protective registrations that will never really be used, but exist solely to make sure nobody else can get their hands on them.

Another aspect of the IP stranglehold, the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act, has chilled security researchers with the prospect of hard time in the state pen.

Business methods and software patents have become a cesspool of attempts to control what many observers feel to be routine and obvious procedures.

Amazon obtained a patent for the concept of a one-click Web purchase, while British Telecom unsuccessfully claimed in court that the very concept of Web links violated one of their old patents.

It's time to stop these time-wasting, costly shenanigans.

Even when courts ultimately rule a particular IP claim invalid, the real winners in these battles, as usual, are the lawyers, who rake in the fees either way.

A commercial currently running on CNN is explicit on this score, promoting a law firm skilled at "high-stakes patent litigation." Well, at least it's a break from the Dell spots.

IP madness not only wastes money directly, but also blows time and opportunity, which ultimately costs all consumers dearly.

Ethical inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, both corporations and individuals, must pore through patent databases and unceasingly look back over their shoulders, scanning endlessly for "stealth" patents that might blow up like hidden time bombs.

There's constant concern that an overworked patent examiner has already granted some simple, obvious process or procedure a ridiculous patent that would never stand up to serious scrutiny, but that the beneficiary will still appear like an evil genie, demanding a king's ransom, an expensive court battle or both.

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